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Drawing the Line on Parental Involvement

If there's one thing everyone agrees on in the education of children, it's the importance of parental involvement. Until recently, the issue has largely focused on parents monitoring homework, attending open house, and responding to requests for a conference. But lately another aspect has come to the fore.

In the face of severe budget cuts, parents have stepped forward to provide generous donations to the school their children attend. Their largess has resulted in the addition of art and music classes, instructional aides and extended library hours. The problem has been that not all schools have been the fortunate recipient. As a result, the U.S. Department of Education has become involved.

To understand why, it's necessary to recall that since the late 1970s courts have repeatedly ruled that resources must be equitably distributed between rich and poor districts. When parents are permitted to give their own money to one particular school, the effect is to create a two-tier system of education between the affluent and the impoverished. Their contributions only exacerbate the already inequitable distribution of state and local funds. According to a new report from the U.S. Department of Education, more than 40 percent of low-income schools are shortchanged (Office of Communications and Outreach, Nov. 30).

This disparity is on display in California in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, where PTA donations have amounted to more than $2,100 per student at Point Dume Marine Science Elementary School in Malibu, compared with only $96 per student at McKinley Elementary School in Santa Monica. To comply with past court rulings, the school board is considering centralizing fundraising. Donations would be placed in a districtwide non-profit, which would then distribute the money evenly among all schools ("Public schools, private donations," Los Angeles Times, Nov. 27).

A similar concern prompted the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California to sue California over the use of fees for textbooks or for taking required tests or courses ("Public Schools Face Lawsuits Over Fees," The New York Times, Sept. 10, 2010). The ACLU correctly argues that charging for instructional materials as well as for art, music and sports programs violates Article IX of the California Constitution: the state shall provide a free education to its children.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the issue is limited to California. In Kansas, parents in affluent districts wanted to place a property-tax increase dedicated to school funding on the ballot. But Kansas is one of a handful of states that limits how much money local school districts can raise from property taxes in order to ensure a rough parity in spending across the state ("Tax Complaint: Too Low," The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 14).

It's understandable why parents have become involved at this time. But the quality of education that students receive should not depend on Zip Code. I don't doubt there are some schools that still provide a solid education in spite of budget shortfalls. However, they are exceptions. Just as the gap between the ultra rich and everyone else is widening, so too will the achievement of schools unless court rulings are followed.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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